What Was the Transcontinental Railroad?
So, you’re curious to know more about the Transcontinental Railroad. Well, before we get started, we should make it clear that there are actually multiple transcontinental railroads. A transcontinental railroad simply refers to a railroad that crosses all or part of a continent. Oftentimes, transcontinental railroads are not just long, single stretches of rail line, but made up of intricate railway networks.
Normally when people talk about the “Transcontinental Railroad” in America, they’re referring to the first one. We call it the “First Transcontinental Railroad” today, but when the system first opened, it was called the “Pacific Railroad.”
The Pacific Railroad has its origins in the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act. This act was actually a series of acts, all aimed at promoting the development of a “transcontinental railroad” from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco, California.
The First Transcontinental Railroad officially opened on May 10, 1869, when the ceremonial “Last Spike” (also known as the “Golden Spike”) was driven by Leland Stanford, joining the rails of the railroad across the United States in Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. Today, you can find the 17.6 karat gold Last Spike at Stanford University.
Constructing the Transcontinental Railroad
Like a lot of old US history, the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad is rife with drama.
When the Pacific Railroad Act was passed, two different companies were enlisted to begin construction. Union Pacific would start in the east, while Central Pacific would start in the west. The idea here being that the rail lines of the two companies would meet in the middle.
From the get-go, the two companies competed for Congressional funding, with both fighting to complete more of the railroad. More funds meant more work which meant more profits. However, a lot of these funds were obtained through sketchy means, or flat out illegally in some cases. Both Union Pacific and Union Pacific were well adept at using legal loopholes.
One such scandal arising from the Pacific Railroad was the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.
The Crédit Mobilier Scandal
The Crédit Mobilier Scandal wouldn’t reach public attention until 1872. It was important, however, in that it helped form a catalyst for widespread public distrust of the American Government.
Back in 1864, Union Pacific was skeptical that their eastern stretch of the railroad, which traversed sparsely settled land, would make a profit. So they went all-in on the construction phase. Major stockholders at Union Pacific, including the VP of the company, created Crédit Mobilier of America.
Crédit Mobilier would help create the facade of private investment in the railroad project, even though it was essentially owned by the bigwigs at Union Pacific. Working under this cover, Union Pacific gave all the contracts to build the railway to Crédit Mobilier–at rates that were significantly above the actual cost to build it.
Crédit Mobilier, in turn, sold shares of the construction project to influential politicians in Washington, who approved large federal subsidies to cover the fraudulently high construction costs. Among those taking bribes were the Vice-President, the Secretary of the Treasury, four senators, and the Speaker of the House.
So Union Pacific basically paid and billed itself, using Crédit Mobilier to give the appearance that they were working with an outside company. They made a ton of money this way. However, once the news of the scandal broke, Union Pacific and its investors would basically go bankrupt. It turns out people don’t like their tax dollars going to the pockets of politicians and railroad barons.
Racism & The Transcontinental Railroad
When construction of the Pacific Railroad began entering the Great Plains under Union Pacific, it also began entering land held by Native Americans. To them, construction of what they would call the “Iron Horse” was a violation of their treaties with the US government. So they would raid camps and generally slow progression of construction.
In direct response, Union Pacific would hire marksmen to kill American Bison, the primary food source of Native Americans living in the Great Plains. Only 300 buffalo would be left by the end of the 19th century, but their population is now around a couple hundred thousand. Consequently, destruction of the American Bison population would play a large role into forcing Native Americans into smaller reservations.
On the west coast, a large Chinese population was beginning to grow in California. Anti-immigrant sentiment was high following the California Gold Rush. So high that Central Pacific only wanted non-immigrant workers, largely ignoring the Chinese and other minorities (like the Irish). However, labor for the project was running low since non-immigrant workers weren’t willing to take the jobs. Chinese and other minority workers were hired out of necessity.
The first Chinese laborers would be hired in 1864. As work on the project became increasingly dangerous, some non-immigrant workers became reluctant to work. This led Central Pacific to employ even more migrant workers.
In an all-too-common story, the migrant workers would be paid far less than their non-immigrant counterparts. They also had to pay for their own food (their Caucasian counterparts did not). On top of all that, they were forced to do the more hazardous work their counterparts didn’t want to do.
Eventually, however, the railroad would be finished, linking east and west by train. While the First Transcontinental Railroad would become a significant part of the American story, we shouldn’t ignore the struggles, sacrifices, and scandals that helped make it happen.